Italian ambassador: ‘Illegal immigration poses security threat to Europe’

Alessandro de Pedys

Alessandro de Pedys [Gazetta Italia]

Many immigrants reaching Italy’s shores cannot or do not want to be identified, posing a security threat to the whole of Europe in terms of terrorism and criminal infiltration, says Alessandro de Pedys, the Italian Ambassador to Poland.

In a wide-ranging interview with, Pedys also talks about Italy’s perceived cosy relations with Russia, how austerity has brought poverty to Greece, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

The interview was conducted by Karolina Zbytniewska and Krzysztof Kokoszczy?ski from EURACTIV Poland.

How do you assess the Italian presidency of the EU Council?

Very positively. Our presidency coincided with the turnover of the European institutions – first, the new European Parliament began the new term in July, then the Commission in November, not to mention the new President of the European Council. But we were prepared for that situation, it allowed us to have a more political rather than technical presidency.

It was a great time for us to influence the debate, to set up the agenda of the Union. By that I mean that we were able to set the debate within the EU and turn it towards new, important goals.

What are the most significant of these changes, in your view?

There are two main areas. First it is the economy policy of the European Union. From the beginning the government of Matteo Renzi has declared that Europe should focus on growth rather than austerity. Throughout our presidency we managed to get EU support for growth-oriented policies, such as Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s investment plan.

The second one is migration. This topic was not even on the agenda a few years back, but we have managed to make a significant difference here. It is important to notice, though, that it is only the beginning of a process.

“Uncontrolled, illegal migration is now on the EU agenda”

What are the changes brought by Italy to the EU’s migration policy?

First we have managed to focus the debate within the EU on migration – we have put especially uncontrolled, illegal migration in the bigger picture of European policy.

The fact that in the Juncker Commission there is a dedicated Commissioner for migration is a proof of the increased importance the EU puts on this issue.

We have also began a debate on a structured, organised EU approach to migration – rather than ad hoc, emergency responses, as was the case with the Lampedusa tragedy.

All in all, we have created a monumental change in attitude. We have caused a significant rise of awareness of the migration topic.

But is it a real, visible change?

Well, it is the beginning of discussion – a discussion we never had before. It will take some time for the true long-term effects to take place.

But there have also been some short- and medium-term developments during our presidency. For example, we have managed to start operation Triton, coordinated by the EU border agency Frontex.

…which has replaced the Italian operation “Mare Nostrum”

It is important to notice the often-confused difference between “Mare Nostrum” and Triton. The latter is a border control operation, while the former is a search and rescue programme.

While they may seem similar in practice, they diverge on one important legal aspect, i.e. who is responsible for the migrants intercepted during the operations. While in the case of “Mare Nostrum” it was us – Italy – that would be obliged to take care of them, in case of Triton, as it is a border control mission, they fall under jurisdiction of whichever country’s border they are trying to cross.

But surely simply capturing migrants cannot be the only response of the EU to the question of migration?

No, of course not. We do not actually “capture” migrants, we intercept and often rescue them. We think that the best solution to the overflow of migrants to the EU is the cooperation with the countries of origin.

Of course, it is not always possible – for example, many of the immigrants come from Libya, which is currently in a state of disarray, with two separate governments and internal tensions running high.

Nevertheless, we have organised conferences during our presidency with other African countries. We hope that direct and long-term engagement will help to minimise the push factors causing people to emigrate from there to Europe in the first place.

“Illegal immigration is a threat for the whole of the EU”

Given that most of the illegal immigrants arrive through the Mediterranean, it seems understandable that Italy considers it to be an important topic. But how would you convince the northern EU countries that migration is also their concern?

It is a threat for the whole of the EU. 170,000 migrants who arrived illegally on the shores of Sicily are a proof of that.

Many of these people cannot or do not want to be identified – there are a potential security threat to the whole of Europe in terms of terrorist and criminal infiltration, besides the economic concerns.

Last year’s Ebola virus outbreak in Africa also underlined the health risks carried by immigrants whose country or area of origin cannot be ascertained.

And how would you convince the Polish people and government in particular? We do not have an issue with illegal immigration, or at least not at the scale Italy is confronted with – we only have a number of people from our eastern neighbours coming here to work.

Yes, the Polish situation is quite different – people coming to work actually want to be found, want to be identified. You have not experienced such a migrant situation as we are experiencing – yet. There are currently two million people wanting to get into the EU every year, to live in the countries with the highest standard of living in the world.

Poland is still catching up to that standard but when you do, these migrants will also want to come here and then you will also have to deal with the issues we are dealing with currently.

If immigration is so important, why then has the topic only came up on the EU agenda recently?

The simple answer is that a common EU approach was not needed until recently. Before, we used a bi- or multilateral approach, the countries affected by massive migrations managed to work out a solution between themselves and the countries of origin.

But after 1989, after the end of the Cold War the situation has changed. When there had been a bipolar world order, the migration situation was much more stable, the countries on the European doorstep were more stable.

But it has changed over the recent years. The world has become much less stable, many of the countries in our neighbourhood have become embroiled in internal conflicts. Before it was mostly economic migration, now a huge number of people are running away from war and persecution. These factors make the previous, limited in scale, approaches less effective in actually impacting the flow of migrants. We need a coordinated approach.

“Austerity has pushed Greece almost into poverty and the rest of Europe into stagnation”

But the recent events in the EU may have decreased that stability. For example, there is a fear that the new government in Greece will prove radical in its policies which in turn could lead to a standoff between Athens and Brussels. You have mentioned the Italian scepticism toward austerity policies and given that the new Greek government is opposed to austerity as well, do you think that Italy could play a role in bridging differences between Athens and the rest of the EU?

I do not think such a bridge is needed. While it is true that the government of Alexis Tsipras is strongly opposed to austerity policies, it is not an anti-EU government.

And do you think Tsipras will take Greece out of the eurozone?

No, I do not. Still, it is important for both sides, Athens and Brussels, to keep level heads and keep on talking to each other.

What is your view on austerity policies? Were they a mistake?

It is a fact that austerity has pushed Greece almost into poverty and the rest of Europe into such stagnation that despite record-low oil prices and record-low interest rates, Europe cannot make its economy grow.

In my personal view, we could have avoided the present situation from the beginning. The austerity policies and especially their punitive aspects have thrown Europe into economic stagnation and poverty.

Do you think that this situation will have a long-term impact on the EU?

Europe was built according to what was called a “functional method”, an apolitical and technocratic process. It drew its legitimacy from its very success.

It has provided prosperity for Europe for a long time but now it is no longer the case. Now we have a problem. If you don’t offer public goods to people, they start rejecting you.

Maybe this is the end of the functional method. We’ll see.

“The European Neighbourhood Policy has failed both in the East and in the South”

In Italy you are more concerned about the countries on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. What future do you see for them in their relation to the EU?

It is difficult to say. In general, we need to reassess the whole policy. The European Neighbourhood Policy has failed both in the east and in the south. In creating a new one we should take care not to overestimate our power to actually impact the events in other countries. We are used to thinking that we can do it, that we have a certain degree of control and influence over them.

But the events of the past few years – Syria, Crimea and Ukraine or Libya – have proven how little we can do there.

You have said that European policy towards Russia and Crimea was not successful. But how is the Italian stance on Russia? In Poland, Italy is often considered as one of the more pro-Russian member states, one that is blocking a harder line towards Moscow.

Actually, if one looks at the reports of EU meetings, there a lot of countries that are more cautious towards Russians than we are.

So you are just less anti-Russian?

Yes, Italy is not pro-Russian nor is it anti-Russian.

“Further sanctions on Russia would hurt us more than them”

So what, in your opinion, the EU should do vis-à-vis Russia?

We don’t need more sanctions. Anything now would hurt us more than them. The sanctions currently in place are already having a significant effect on Russia – the rouble is plummeting, for example, and the Russian economy is suffering.

Yet we have to keep talking to Russia. It is not going anywhere soon and an isolated Russia would have significant potential to cause harm, economic and political, to its neighbours, to individual member states and the European Union as a whole.

And how would you comment on the actions of the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini? She is perceived as a dove towards Russia, someone to balance the new European Council’s President Donald Tusk’s more hawkish approach.

She definitely shifted her initial stance towards Russia. In the beginning it was definitely our national approach, but now she has changed in order to better represent the EU as a whole, which is the logical thing to do given her new role.

In terms of cooperation between her and Donald Tusk, the most important thing will be to build a good personal chemistry between them. If they manage to find a common language, a way to work together effectively, they will be able to shape the European policy. They will have a more political approach than their predecessors.

While hard security is on people’s minds due to the events in Eastern Ukraine, the previous tensions between the EU and Russia has proven that there is a need in Europe for a greater energy security. What is, then, the Italian approach to one of the most important topics for Poland – the Energy Union?

We are in favour, although we have made already good progress in several fields, including renewable energy, energy efficiency and diversification of energy supplies.

We have different sources of gas and oil – from Africa, Middle East, even Norway, so it is less of a priority for us. Yet we agree that such a Union would be beneficial for the EU and so we support this idea.

“The Italian senate is to be abolished in its current form”

Ukraine’s problems are caused by separatists. But the problem also exists within the EU – there was the Scottish referendum on independence and the unrecognised referendum in Catalonia. Do you see a chance of a separatist movement appearing in Italy? You do have the Northern League as one of the main political parties…

No, I do not think it is possible. As opposed to the examples you have mentioned, there has never been a case of a separate northern Italian state. It is like we thought of, say, Padania as a state.

Furthermore, northern Italy is well integrated with the rest of the country and with Europe – economically, politically and culturally.

There can be more devolution of power, according to the principles of subsidiarity but there certainly cannot be any kind of actual separatist, pro-independence movement.

Italy has recently elected a new president, Sergio Mattarella, a constitutional judge who replaced the long-serving Giorgio Napolitano. How would you describe the role of the president in the Italian political system?

It is mostly a representative function. I would say that its most important facet is the stability it provides to society. Recently we had a quick succession of different governments – Berlusconi, Monti, Letta, and Renzi. During this stressful time, Napolitano had been the one constant in people’s lives, thus calming down any potential tensions within the country.

The election of Mattarella can be considered a success of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – like the nomination of Federica Mogherini, wouldn’t you agree?

Yes, indeed. Renzi in the recent elections managed to keep the party together and prevented any defections, something that has proven impossible during the previous ones.

And what about his other successes? When he assumed office in February last year, he promised that he would pass one reform each month but it seems this has proven more difficult than previously thought…

Well, maybe he has not passed one reform a month but still he has managed to introduce several of them. For example, we have had the so-called jobs act, improving the employment situation, though the latter still needs a number of decrees to be introduced in order to be fully effective. Work on the reform of the public administration is also under way and a new electoral law has been approved.

And what still needs to be done?

There is still an institutional reform needed. The senate is to be abolished in its current form and a new one to be created from scratch. In the new form, it will be a house for the representatives of local authorities , to better integrate the local and central policies.

There is also a need for the reform of the judiciary system. The current length of procedures in our legal system is one of its greatest flaws and something that the government is working on to change.

There is also a number of smaller ones. For example simplifying procedure for infrastructure projects important for the whole country or for Europe, so that not every single local community can block it indefinitely.

“We are very supportive of TTIP”

Turning to EU-US relations, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has been on the top of the European agenda for some time but many interest groups have recently tried to block it. What is the Italian stance on this trade agreement with the US?

We are very supportive. That is why we have been pushing for it during our presidency and, thanks also to Polish support, we have managed to increase the transparency of the negotiations. There is actually a lot of misinformation…

And a lack of information…

And a lack of information, yes. But we are happy that Europe has the potential to increase its economic and political ties with the US. Especially given the increased need of security within the EU, the security that can be only improved with the American support.

It is still key for us to actually finish the negotiations soon. If we manage to do so, then the TTIP will set a standard for the global trade agreements for the years to come. Otherwise we will let others dictate their terms to us – the US is also negotiating free trade agreements with other countries, including Asian countries, so the clock is ticking for us.

Do you think it is possible to conclude the TTIP negotiations this year?

I hope so. Yet I am afraid it may prove too big of a challenge and the negotiations may be prolonged into the coming year.

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